Friday, June 30, 2006

Build Yourself a Brain

This is really way cool. Biologist blogger PZ Myers summarises brand new research into the neurology of the octopus's brain. Octopi are smart and have good memory thanks to their large and intricate brains. This biocomputer is in some senses wildly different from our own: for instance, the gullet passes through the octopus's brain. This is hardly surprising as vertebrates and octopi are on very far branches of the bush of life: our last common ancestor didn't have any brain at all. We've evolved brains independently, just as we've got unrelated eye structures. Yet there are similarities too in the neuronal architecture, which suggests convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution is when organisms without any close relationship to each other evolve similar form under similar selection pressures. The most commonly quoted example is the similarities between swimming dinosaurs, dolphins and large fish such as sharks. They look pretty much the same, because that's the optimal way to build a successful marine predator. The similarities between the brains of vertebrates and octopi suggest that there are also optimal ways of wiring a biocomputer to build a smart animal.

The reason that I'm worked up about this is the implications it has for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Vertebrates and octopi have evolved similar thinking boxes independently starting from the humble neural heritage of mindless worm ancestors. It happened at least twice on Earth -- so it probably happens a lot on similar planets elsewhere!

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Love Kraft

I saw a deserted town on a mountainside. A desert landscape at sundown under a purple sky. On the unpleasantly cranial hills were antediluvian colossal statues that hurt my mind to see. Cyclopean cervids with tentacled faces and folded hands appeared to pay the dying day a sardonic reverence. And as I felt cold sweat break out on my forehead and my throat constrict in utter horror for the coming of darkness, I heard a sepulchral voice. And it chanted the forbidden words, "HOLL DREFNIANNAU LLINYNNOL A CHWYTHBRENNAU!"

Then I realised that it was not a dream or fever vision. It was the cover of the Welsh pop band The Super Furry Animals' latest CD, Love Kraft. The forbidden words mean "All string and wind arrangements" in Cymric. The music is the same tasty and varied stew of soft psychedelia as the band's previous records, now with clear influences from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the harmony singing. Highly recommended! Apart from the album title and the cover art, however, there is no overtly cthulhoid content. One has to make do with a song about an invasion from outer space.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

War Booty Sacrifices and Princely Graves in the Barbaricum

The Monday before last I blogged a bit about my visit to Schleswig from the train home. Since then, I’ve written a proper conference report that will be published in the autumn issue of Fornvännen. That’s not until October, though, so I might as well put it on-line right away.

Ongoing Research Into War Booty Sacrifices and Princely Graves in the Barbaricum. International Conference, Schleswig, 15–17 June 2006.

In modern-day Denmark and adjoining areas, peat bogs are sometimes found that are full of vandalised military equipment from the Late Roman Iron Age and Migration Period (2nd to 6th centuries AD). The anaerobic conditions in the bogs are such that the finds, both metal and organics, are in pristine shape. Details show that the objects were not made in the area adjoining the individual bog: instead they hint at origins sometimes in western Scandinavia, sometimes south-eastern Scandinavia, occasionally northern Germany. Boats occur too.

The scholarly consensus is that the finds represent equipment taken from unsuccessful invading armies arriving by sea. Tacitus tells of Germanic tribes that would promise any future spoils of war to their gods before a battle to improve their chances of victory. That is, they bought battle luck on credit. Apparently, the gods then wanted to have the spoils vandalised and thrown into sacred lakes. After over 1500 years, these lakes are now solid peat.

The war booty sacrifices offer a unique window on a prehistoric period whose archaeological record elsewhere is not often well preserved. Excavations and publications in the 1850s and 60s by Conrad Engelhardt brought the source category into the limelight, and it has never left it since. The best-recorded and –published war booty find is that from Illerup Ådal in Jutland, whose co-excavator Jørgen Ilkjær has so far published ten hefty analytical volumes on the site, some together with Claus von Carnap-Bornheim.

The two collaborators are now nurturing a new generation of scholars in this field. Well-funded sister projects – one based in Århus, the other in Schleswig – have been set up, where doctoral students are re-publishing and analysing the 19th century finds in the light of the results of the Illerup studies. Funding is provided by the Carlsberg foundation and the European Social Fund. Yes, social. From the EU’s point of view, the German project is apparently a good way to alleviate the sad social circumstances among PhD students of archaeology. Bleak indeed are their career prospects.

The projects have run since 2004/2005 and approach their half-way mark. This occasion was marked in June with a two-day conference at the Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig. The aim was to allow the projects’ participants to tell each other and other attendees what they are doing, and to offer presentations by colleagues working with other relevant material. A proceedings publication is planned. The list of attendees covers 95 names, mostly of German and Danish scholars. No Norwegians and only a single Swede were there, sad to tell: after all, it is our gear the smug Danes keep digging out of their bogs.

I went to Schleswig at the expense of the Academy of Letters to pick up news and relay it to Fornvännen’s readers. News, however, turned out to be somewhat scarce, as the projects work mainly with well-known finds excavated very long ago and had not yet had time to move much beyond the cataloguing and dating stage.

Engelhardt published a selection of well-preserved objects from each site, giving the reader a good overview of what types were present, but no idea of the numbers or variability involved in each case. The finds from the Thorsbjerg bog became mixed up in Denmark's loss of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia in 1864, and ended up at various German and Danish museums. Engelhardt brought one piece of each type from Thorsbjerg to Copenhagen, leaving the rest to the conquerors. Times have changed for the better: in return for the loan of the ship from the Nydam bog to the Sejrens triumf exhibition in Copenhagen, the National Museum has now lent all its finds from Thorsbjerg to the Landesmuseum in Schleswig.

25 papers were read, many of them very literally so and in German, which tasked the audience’s powers of concentration in the balmy summer temperature. As suggested by the conference title, two main thematic blocks were offered: one on war booty finds and one on rich graves.

The doctoral students are cataloguing and preparing bog finds for complete Illerup-style publication and performing various analyses as they go along. von Carnap Bornheim’s students Ruth Blankenfeldt, Julia Gräf, Nina Lau, Suzana Matesic and Florian Westphal are all working with various aspects of Thorsbjerg. Andreas Rau studies the 1990s finds from Nydam, and his thesis will also contain a re-study of Skedemosse. Susan Möller-Wiering looks at the textiles from Illerup. In Denmark, Jørgen Ilkjær works with Vingsted, Rasmus Birch Iversen with Kragehul, Xenia Pauli Jensen with Vimose, Anne Nørgård Jørgensen with Porskjær and Per Ole Schovsbo with Tranbær. Ejsbøl currently lacks a caretaker.

The bogs received repeated offerings over the centuries: one of the projects’ aims is to test and refine current ideas about how many sacrificial episodes each site has seen, and when. Among the early finds with poor documentation, it is now increasingly possible to reconstruct sets of objects made and used together from manufacturing details and the scanty notes in Engelhardt's diaries.

Thorsbjerg is the southernmost of the great war booty bog sites, located in Schleswig-Holstein, just north of Süderbrarup. The find is unusual as it contains the equipment not of Norwegian or Swedish invaders, but of forces attacking from the south, the Altmark, near the Roman border. This shows in finds such as a much-discussed silver mask. Is it part of a Roman parade helmet? According to Thomas Fischer of Cologne this is unlikely: they weren't made of thick solid silver like the Thorsbjerg mask. Instead, he suggests that it is the re-worked face of a 3rd century cult statue, looted from a temple in Gaul. This would likely make it a later functional relative of the recently found bronze mask from Västra Vång in Blekinge, Sweden (published in Fornvännen 2006:3). I find this interpretation, supported by finds of closely similar silver god faces, attractive and convincing.

Thematically related to the bog finds although separated from them by centuries, a fascinating look into the grisly cultic habits of La Tène-period Gaul was given by the polyglot Jean-Louis Brunaux, excavator of the rural temple complex at Ribemont-sur-Ancre near Amiens. Here a Roman temple was built upon the remains of what Brunaux interprets as a tropaion and monument erected on a battlefield c. 250 BC. The losing side’s dead were decapitated and their bodies and gear displayed for a long time before being buried in a great ossuary, one of the few large finds of unburnt human bones known from this time and area. A great cremation pit, meanwhile, most likely represents the fallen of the winning side. (An early illustrated report on the site is found in Fornvännen 1984).

Arne Jouttijärvi presented very interesting interpretations of metallurgical analyses of copper alloy objects from the bogs. Such data allow him to assign objects or parts of such to individual casting episodes, and so to re-unite objects disassociated either when they were sacrificed or when they were excavated in the 19th century. In Jouttijärvi’s sample, details of the objects’ design confirm such links nicely. The links also help identify individual sacrificial episodes within large bogs such as Ejsbøl. The evaporation of zinc from open crucibles offers relative chronology: low-zinc rivets with a characteristic alloy composition on one mount can for example be identified as made from re-melted leftovers from the casting of another high-zinc mount. I would love to see such studies applied to grave finds as well, to strengthen the identification of the defeated armies’ origins. And, as Xenia Pauli Jensen suggested, it would be most interesting if it were possible to link a broken object with a well-documented find context at Illerup to a fragment excavated somewhere else by Engelhardt. This would mean that the spoils from one battle could end up in several sacred lakes.

In the concluding segment, we learned some exciting news about princely graves of the Early Roman Period Lübsow group and the Late Roman Period Hassleben-Leuna group. Papers were given on Lübsow and Gommern, and unpublished grave finds of eye-popping splendour from Neudorf-Bornstein and Hagenow in Schleswig-Holstein as well as Vorbasse in Jutland were presented. Finally, Susanne Wilbers-Rost and Achim Rost told us the latest news from the AD 9 battlefield at Kalkriese, including enlightening work on the archaeological formation processes at the site, which must have included not only a battle lasting for days but also an extended period of post-battle looting.

All in all, it was a stimulating conference and a pleasure to meet with so many colleagues keenly interested in solid, well-preserved finds. Sweden has at least two great war booty bog sites comparable to the Danish ones: Skedemosse on Öland and Finnestorp in Västergötland. The low known number is probably largely due to our abundant forests. The Danes have little woodland, so historically they have burnt a lot of bog peat, and so they have made a lot of bog finds. Finnestorp has been excavated for several seasons in the 00s by Bengt Nordqvist in collaboration with the metal detecting section of the Göteborg Archaeological Society. (I myself have had the pleasure of working with them in Östergötland.) The finds are similar in quality and date to Ejsbøl, with a great number of beautiful chip-carved strap mounts. There is no doubt in my mind that we could find more of these sites if we made goal-orientated forays into Swedish wetlands. Then we might learn what sort of pressure the Danes themselves were applying to the north and east 1800 years ago.

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Aestivating Technorati

I've bitched before about the quality of the blog indexing service Technorati. They've set a new record now: it's been 26 days since they updated the link count for this blog. I've pinged them regularly, I've written twice to user support, no help. I guess their staff have spun themselves into cocoons in dark corners of the server hall, waiting for the summer to pass.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Working for Fun and/or Profit

I'm going to go out on a limb here and jot down some thoughts about national economics, a field in which I am almost completely ignorant. (I hope nobody who knows anything reads this. Or if you do, then I hope you can give me some good answers.)

A common idea that I find strange is the politically motivated wish to create demand for something, be it goods or labour. "The consumers must be made to buy more stuff", or "We must create jobs". Create demand? But demand is bad, right?. Demand means a lack of something. The less demand, the better, everybody already being content. Buddha knew that.

Well, I realise that's a naïve perspective. Goods or labour of course come down to the same thing: a demand for goods creates jobs that increase employment. And increased employment allows consumers to buy more stuff if they can be persuaded that this would be a good idea, thereby increasing demand. Unfortunately, this also leads to currency inflation, so apparently you must always cynically keep a few percent's unemployment to keep the currency stable.

But what does this mean from my own or anybody else's personal perspective? I'm an individualist, not some chaplinesque part of the great societal machine. I don't buy stuff to stimulate the economy, just the stuff I need or want. In fact, I dislike buying things and try to buy as little as possible. Consumerism and advertising is just dumb, an affront to anybody's intelligence, and disastrous for the ecology in the long term.

As for creating jobs, come on! Where's the pride in going to work if you know it's just created to stimulate the economy? My main reason to work is my own enjoyment and the sense that I contribute something valuable to society. My skills are abstruse and impractical, so there's not much demand for them, but I spend my days doing things I enjoy and people who share my interests seem to like the results. If I really ran low on money, I'd get some semi-menial job to pay the rent and "put food on my family", but so far that hasn't been necessary. I have inexpensive tastes and habits.

This is connected to the idea of a citizen's wage, where everybody would be paid a minimum wage by the state. I'm not sure that this would change things greatly in practice. Unemployment is of course a drag, but regardless of whether people have jobs or not, it's always a matter of the rich supporting the poor. Either the poor work for the rich and get paid survival-level wages, allowing the rich to increase their wealth, or the poor are unemployed and get survival-level welfare money from the state, taken as taxes from the rich. (Or, in my somewhat unusual case, the rich set up research foundations to feed poor scholars.) A citizen's wage would just make this reality more evident. But it would give people more spare time, I guess, to "do whatever common people do", like the corn dole in ancient Rome. Panem et circenses.

From my perspective, it really wouldn't be a step forward if every unemployed Swede were given a boring job in the widget manufacturing industry so he could make money to buy more widgets. Anyway, Swedish factory workers can't compete with south-east Asian ones who work for peanuts just to stay alive. But Sweden's an extremely affluent country. As Douglas Adams put it:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question, 'How can we eat?' The second by the question, 'Why do we eat?' And the third by the question, 'Where shall we do lunch?'"
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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Book Review: Hartwell & Cramer, Year's Best SF 11

A child of the 70s, I grew up with science fiction. First on-screen in the US: the original Star Trek series, Saturday morning superhero cartoons, and most impressive of all, the first Star Wars movie at the age of five. Then we moved back to Sweden in '78 and I started reading. A lot. Our local library had – still has – a separate section for sf, most of it translated from English.

My first sf favourites were Heinlein, Clarke, Aldiss and Simak. Never liked Asimov. I've later realised that the sf section existed largely thanks to one man, author editor translator publisher Sam J. Lundwall. Being also a founding father of the Stockholm Tolkien Society, he influenced my life in more ways than one.

It took many years before I became aware of sf short stories. But in 2002 I started reading David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer's short fiction anthologies, Year's Best SF. Since then, I pre-order them every year on the net, and I've also read a number of earlier volumes. The most recent one, number 11, reached me last week. All the stories in it were published in 2005.

Science fiction, as you probably know, Dear Reader, has many sub-genres. One thing that sets them apart is how involved the author is with real science and engineering. Hard sf, such as Larry Niven, has a lot of it. Soft sf, such as Ursula K. LeGuin, deals more with people than machines and celestial bodies. If an sf author bothers to tell you in any detail how her space ships manage to travel faster than light, then she's hard. If he explores novel social arrangements, gender roles and how to co-exist with aliens, then he's soft.

The distinctive touch that make the Hartwell & Cramer anthologies so good is that they seek out hard sf stories with a soft perspective. In the new volume, for instance, there's Daryl Gregory's fascinating "Second Person, Present Tense", which riffs on an idea from actual neural psychology: what if the part of your brain that simulates your sense of personhood got whacked by a drug, forcing the brain to build a new ego to reside among your memories and knowledge? How would the new inhabitant relate to people who knew and loved the obliterated person whose brain and body she's inherited?

Or, as in Alastair Reynolds's "Beyond the Aquila Rift", what if your spaceship ran into a glitch in a space-time wormhole, catapulting you to an impossibly distant star system from which you would never be able to return? What would you tell your crew after waking them up out of suspended animation?

Or, if you seeded a planet with life and decided to leave a present for any intelligent beings that might one day evolve on it – what would you choose for a gift? Oliver Morton's "The Albian Message" offers a suggestion.

There are a lot of short, often humorous pieces in volume 11 as well, many culled from the fiction pages of Nature. I particularly liked the ones by David Langford, Bruce Sterling and Ted Chiang, and the baroque space-war prose poem "Dreadnought" by Justina Dobson.

This anthology is highly recommended. Good writing, memorable characterisation and mind-boggling new ideas. Dear Reader, when was the last time you came across a new idea?

Hartwell, D.G. & Cramer, K. (eds). Year's Best SF 11. EOS Science Fiction. ISBN 0-06-087341-7.
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Monday, June 26, 2006

Race and Desire

My wife and I talked about race today. She's Chinese, absolutely beautiful, blowtorch hot. Being with her is a daily joy. Sometime's I've fancied I could recognise details from some Hokusai print in her build. It really pisses her off, though, she grumbles and calls me a racist.

But I'm not into her because she's Asian. Nor despite the fact that she's Asian, for that matter. I'm just mad about her, head to toes. And she happens to be Asian.

I have yet to encounter a nation without any hot women. The day they make me an Oriental despot, I'll send the recruiting eunuchs for my harem to every corner of the world. Immigration has added enormously to the diversity of Sweden's gene pool, and it's great to stroll around among the people of Stockholm these days. So many ways of being beautiful.

I read a story today about genetically altered people with photosynthesis. Green skin and golden hair. Their women sounded really good too.

And I've been thinking about people with a thing for some ethnic or racial type. I know a lady who only goes for Jewish guys, preferably older than her. And another lady who loves African guys. And I know there are people with a thing for blondes, for blacks, for Asians, for Latin Americans. Is that bad? "You sick bastard, you only want me because I'm blonde/black/Asian/Latin!"

No, I don't think it's bad. The important thing isn't how we choose our mates, but how we treat them once we've gotten together with them. Actually, I'd say it's far better for a pale Swedish lady to have a thing for black guys than if she felt repulsed by them.

But most of us don't go through partners fast enough for our preferences to show. The statistical base never becomes large enough to be representative. And when we do hook up with someone, it's rarely pick-and-choose: it's a matter of luck and circumstance. As Nina Persson put it in A Camp's "Song for the Leftovers":
You're not what I was after
but I'm happy with what I found
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Saturday, June 24, 2006


There's a rhyme about scars in Swedish, minnet i skinnet, "memory in your skin". And for some scars, the skin remembers long after you've forgotten what cut you.

Every time I shave, I look at two scars on my chin. I know how I got one of them -- stomach infection, diarrhoea, got up too fast from the porcelain throne, passed out from the blood pressure drop, fell like a log, landed on my chin and left eyebrow. But the other one? No idea. It isn't recent. I've never been drunk or stoned, so that's not it. Probably a childhood scar -- my mother may remember.

My daughter's nose sports a vertical millimeter-wide silvery scar stripe between the right nostril and the tip. She'll keep it all her life, maybe obsess about it in her teens, though I hope not. I'll be able to tell her about her first few months in daycare, still not very steady on her feet, tripping over the edge of the sandbox and doing a face plant.

Most of my scars are childhood ones. Halfway between the joints on my left thumb: a cut from when we were getting juniper to make bows for archery. The inside of my left wrist: a puncture wound from crawling through a sloe bush. I spent all evening crying and worrying at the wound with a pin, trying to find part of the thorn that I imagined had lodged between the tendons. My knees, oh, my poor knees: that's what you get for riding a bike fast and inexpertly on gravel tracks far into the summer evenings. And the left side of my forehead: do not run head first through a drapery that's partly drawn across a doorway, because you won't be able to gauge exactly where the door post is.

Then there's the intentional scarification of recent years. The 28 punctures from blood donation on the inside of my left arm. And the not entirely successful attempt to remove moles with laser: before getting fried they were protruding, firm and dark; now they're protruding, soft and fish-belly pale.

Strange to think how uninformative this use-wear on my body is. As a bog body, all I'd be able to tell future archaeologists would be that I had lived in prosperous and peaceful times and that I could afford dentistry. It's like all stories: nobody wants to listen to narratives without conflict and hardship.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Amréus to Head Museum

A year ago, Kristian Berg resigned from the post as director of the Museum of National Antiquities (Historiska museet) in Stockholm. He was a controversial leader who made few friends and many enemies, the latter including most Swedes who care about archaeology and the ambassador of Israel. The main problem with Berg was that he seemed completely uninterested in archaeology and Medieval art, which are the museum's areas of responsibility, while working very diligently in the interest of political correctness and utility. Another problem was a cold, hard & nasty leadership style. I wasn't one of his fans.

Berg's former deputy Lars Amréus has been provisional director for a year. Rumor has it that the job has been offered to a number of archaeologists who have turned it down when seeing what the museum's staff situation is like after Berg's years at the helm. And today the papers report that Amréus has been given the job.

I'd be leery of anyone who could work for so long and so closely with Berg, but I hear good things about Amréus from the museum staff. He's much nicer, he's an archaeologist, he's more of an unassuming plain-vanilla museum director. Unlikely to piss people off. The museum has just received a lot of money for basic cataloguing work, and archaeologists are once more seen in its corridors. All Amréus has to do now is replace Berg's exhibitions department, which is currently entirely staffed by non-archaeologists.

So, I'm optimistic: good luck Lars! (But what do I really know: I was optimistic about Kristian Berg as well at first.)

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Shooting Yourself in the Foot

With the shooting yesterday of Khamis al-Obeidi, three of Saddam Hussein's defense councels have been murdered so far. There is reason to believe that the assassins are Shiite militiamen, belonging to a religious faction that was persecuted under the dictatorship. They are clearly murdering Saddam's lawyers because they view them as his friends.

To the murderers, I must say: You. Silly. Ignorant. Bastards. You're shooting yourself in the foot.

If you knew a tiny bit about the outside world, then you'd realise that the only way that the ex-dictator you hate so much is ever going to get a sentence and any punishment is if a civilised trial can be held. The eyes of the world are upon that courtroom. By shooting the lawyers, you are stalling the process, allowing Saddam to reach a ripe old age in jail before actually being declared guilty of his crimes.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Science and Art

The motto of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm is Vetenskap och Konst, "Science and art". The word art is used here in an earlier sense of "craft skill". Engineers allow their craft skill to be guided by science. Do build a beautiful bridge, but first make sure to calculate its tensile strength.

The same motto might be claimed by Swedish colleges for art and music. In recent years, their organisation has been made more uniform with the rest of the higher education system. You can now become a piano professor and do research in sculpture. This is something quite apart from art and music studies in the Arts Faculty of a university. The university scholar is an external observer of art, and these disciplines were until recently known as art history etc. The piano professor, however, is a pianist.

On 11 June, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported about an letter sent jointly by the leaders of Stockholm's six art colleges to the Minister of Culture and Education. The article's headline was "Do not keep art and science apart". The six signatories asked for money from the Swedish Research Council to finance "developed research in art that can give new insights into the methods and processes of the artist". Nota bene, research in art, not about art. The intended purpose would be to allow artists to do "research" into their own processes of creation and "leave the work of art untouched".

The college leaders quote a Dutch scholar: "Research in art does not distinguish subject from object". The headmistress of the University College of Dance, Eva Lilja, was quoted as saying "it is important not to polarise, not to keep art and science apart". She complained that research in art always has to compete with university research at the Arts Faculty. "We always lose, since artistic research does not apply scientific methods and practices".

Dear Reader, if you know me at all, you'll realise that this had my eyes bugging out. I certainly hope that the Research Council will continue to refuse to finance activities that do not distinguish between subject and object, that do not apply scientific methods and practices. Polarising is important. Art is art and science is science. The one seeks beauty in one sense or another. The other seeks truth. That's a very important distinction. I don't want my tax money to pay scientists to write speculative fiction at work, nor to allow painters and musicians to play at being scholars.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Schleswig and Hedeby

As I begin writing this entry, I'm waiting in the sunshine at Schleswig railway station in northwest Germany, near the Danish border. The town is a tiny place in beautiful rural surroundings, and judging from the number of empty shop spaces and houses, it's dwindling further.

I came here for a two-day conference and stayed on over Sunday for the Viking Period monuments. The area has been a contested border zone between Jutland and various Continental powers at least since the 7th century, as shown for example by the great wall-and-dyke of the Danevirke. The last time the area changed hands was only in 1864 when the Prussians took it from the Danes. Also, it's a topographically convenient spot to cross the base of Jutland from the North Sea to the Baltic or vice versa. So it's no surprise to find a heavily fortified 9th to 11th century town here: Hedeby.

The modern name of the parish is Haddeby, which progresses organically from the Viking Period pronunciation, Hæidhabyr. But the town site is known to modern Germans as Haithabu. This is an artefact of the 16-character runic alphabet: you can't write Hæidhabyr very well with it, so a runestone erected by one of the local magnates calls the place HITHABU. This is similar to the way that the Viking Period Biærkey via the Latin Birca became the modern name Birka, referring to the town site on Björkö near Stockholm which is actually the same word.

Compared to this sister town on Björkö, Hedeby offers the modern visitor a much larger museum, a more impressive, really huge town wall connected to the Danevirke, but less in the way of barrow cemeteries. Small excavations and a lot of professional metal detecting are currently taking place. Us Swedes should be metal-detecting the Björkö site too! But then again, we haven't published the early 90s excavations yet...

Bundesland Schleswig-Holstein has a very rich archaeological record. Its Bronze Age and Roman Iron Age are second to none. The conference I attended was on the great war booty sacrifices of the latter period. In the 2nd to the 6th centuries, people in the area sacrificed the gear of successfully repelled invading armies in holy lakes that later became peat bogs with perfect preservation. Most have been found in modern Denmark. But the southernmost one, Thorsbjerg, was found in Schleswig-Holstein, just north of Süderbrarup. It's unusual as it contains the equipment not of Norwegian or Swedish invaders, but of people attacking from the south, the Altmark, near the Roman border. This shows in the unusual finds, such as the silver mask.

The mask has been much discussed: is it part of a Roman parade helmet? According to Thomas Fischer of Cologne this is unlikely: they weren't made of thick solid silver like the Thorsbjerg mask. Instead, he suggests that it is the re-worked face of a 3rd century cult statue, looted from a temple in Gaul. This would likely make it a later relative of the recently found bronze mask from Västra Vång in Blekinge, Sweden. I like this interpretation, as it wraps up a lot of loose threads.

The Thorsbjerg finds became mixed up in Denmark's loss of Schleswig-Holstein, and ended up at various German and Danish museums. Currently, they have been re-united at the Landesmuseum in Schleswig for re-study and a more comprehensive re-publication. Led by Jørgen Ilkjær and Claus von Carnap Bornheim, young doctoral students are returning to the finds from Nydam, Vimose, Kragehul, Thorsbjerg and Ejsbøl, analysing them armed with the knowledge gained from the recent work at Illerup Ådal. Very cool.

Sweden has at least two of these war booty bog sites, Skedemosse on Öland and Finnestorp in Västergötland. The low known number is probably due to our abundant forests. The Danes have little woodland, so historically they have burnt a lot of bog peat, and so they have made a lot of bog finds. I was the only Swede at the conference. I told the other attendees that the rest of Sweden's research scholars were unfortunately busy reading Michel Foucault. In Sweden, I am known as a neo-positivist with little more than scorn for data-divorced archaeological theory. In Germany and Denmark, people remark on my obvious and incisive theoretical leanings. But really, Dear Reader, given the choice to read the collected works of either Foucault or Ilkjær, can there be any doubt as to what I'd prefer?

Now I'm in Neumünster, of Wachholtz Verlag and Frühmittelalterliche Studien fame. I'm going to Lübeck via Bad Oldeslohe, and thence to the old Hansa town's disused military airstrip from which the cheap Irish airline will whisk me to Skavsta. Dear Reader, I sign off at 10:39 aboard a commuter train that sounds like a long-haul diesel truck.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Half a Year of Blogging

Salto sobrius will be half a year old on Friday the 16th. I'll be at a conference in Germany where I won't be able to do the statistics for this entry. So, a bit early, here's some taking stock of the first half-year. (I love stats!)

Posting frequency: on average a bit more than one entry a day.

Readership: monthly averages are steady at c. 90-120 unique readers daily starting February. I'm a bit disappointed about the lack of growth. Note that the traffic I do see depends heavily on active marketing to an e-mail list, an on-line forum and several blog carnivals. Simply posting and pinging isn't enough. The dip in April occurred largely because I was doing fieldwork and missed carnival submission deadlines. I'm hosting three of my favourite carnivals in July, September and October, and that should attract some heavy traffic.

But what really bothers me are the figures for regular readers. First-time visitors who end up here because they searched for the word bikini aren't really such a big deal. But ideally, every week a few of these first-timers should become regulars. Instead, the blog seems to be stuck at 30-40 regulars a day. I'm not sure what to do about this except continue writing whatever I feel like writing. But do send requests! And tell yer friends.

Links: on Technorati, with links from 61 individual sites, Salto sobrius is currently ranked about number 42 000 out of 44 million, which is pretty good.

Comments: Dear Reader, I love your comments. The other day I met Akhôrahil and told him his comments are great. He looked surprised and said "But I keep disagreeing with you!". So keep 'em coming, people.

I enjoy blogging a lot: I love to write, and the blog fills an important communicative need for me as I lead a pretty lonely professional life, being a research scholar without university affiliation. So I think I'll be here for quite a while.

Science, pseudoscience, fraud and poetry

A reply to a thoughtful comment by Sharon Howard, an Early Modern period historian based in Wales, keeper of the Early Modern Notes blog.

What Sharon calls pseudo-science, I call scientific fraud. Most pseudoscientific authors are not fraudulent. Through lack of skill or self-delusion, they offer the reader unsubstantiated claims dressed up in scientific apparel. Think of it as wannabe science. Some of it is fraud.

Unsubstantiated claims, dreams and speculation are the lifeblood of fiction. They are the business of poets and novelists. An academic who puts out such speculation under a university imprint does not, however, become a poet. He's far too boring for that. He just becomes a pretentious pseudoscientist.

I write scholarly studies, aesthetic essays, a bit of fiction and poetry. The line between science and fictional genres is important and should not be blurred. Anyone can tell a story. But finding out scientific truth takes skill and hard work.

Sharon says, "The past is a strange kind of entity. I don't tend to think of it as a 'reality' at all; the only reality is the surviving evidence of its existence, and all historians or archaeologists can do is interpret its remains." I have a feeling that this only applies to the past she has not experienced herself. Yesterday, last year, the 90s, they are all part of Sharon’s current makeup. But still she’d probably have to resort to the methods of historical scholarship to find out the forgotten details about her 90s. What did Sharon do on 14 June 1996? Only the diaries of herself and her friends can tell.

As for situations where several competing interpretations carry equal weight, well, that’s where a scholar should drop the issue or go off in search for new source material. We’ll never know what bedtime songs Stone Age children heard. Better to look at more fruitful areas of inquiry.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tell Me the Truth

Aaah, a hot sunny morning, seagulls and two long comments to reply to. Cornelius:
Epistemic relativism means that nobody's knowledge is more accurate to an assumed single reality than any other (in other words, there is no single, knowable reality) - and this is a respectable academic position that is shared by some archaeologists (including myself).
Respectable, my ass. Cornelius is abusing the word knowledge. What he should say is faith. Absolutely appalling.

Anyone who asserts that "nobody's knowledge is more accurate to an assumed single reality than any other" is, as I said, willingly or not, an anti-intellectual enemy of democracy and the open society. And also either disingenuous or nuts, in my opinion. There either is or is not milk in the fridge. There either were or were not gas chambers in Auschwitz. Having been able to survive for decades in urban environments, Cornelius clearly looks both ways before crossing the street. This indicates that he realises that cars have an independent physical existence, which suggests, encouragingly, that he is not nuts.
Making judgements on the basis of politics and ethics is not anti-intellectual but the duty of every good citizen in a democracy.
Sure, judgements about what to do. Not about what the real world is or has been like. First you investigate what the factual situation is. Then you make a moral judgement as to what to do about it. You can't act morally unless you know the facts. I think it would be morally superb if nobody had ever been oppressed or exterminated, but the fact is that they have, whatever Cornelius or myself try to persuade ourselves.

As to the problem of arguing about the truth with "clever fascists", I am pretty confident about the power of reason and open debate.
We are much rather paid to educate students, manage heritage and museums, satisfy peoples' curiosity, interpret artefacts, influence collective identities.
Here, Cornelius assumes the right to interpret the instructions given by the parliament to the universities in any way he likes. As a university scholar, he is in fact instructed to teach and do research on a solid scientific foundation. The sad case of bewildered professor Eva Lundgren, whose "hermeneutic" work with abused women led her to fantasise about Satanist orgies and ritual murder, and who was publicly disgraced when her work was scrutinised, shows clearly that the Swedish public has the same simple concept of truth and science as myself. They pay archaeologists to find out and disseminate facts about the past, period.

So, in the name of honesty, I think Cornelius should preface his future grant applications with the words "I believe that all knowledge is culturally constructed and that no scholar can know better than the next man what the world actually is or has been like." For fairness's sake, I'll come clean too and preface mine with the words "I believe that scholars can and should find out interesting solid facts about what the world actually is and has been like".
For a truly enlightened tax payer there are very few good reasons to care about the truth of how a farmer may have lived thousands of years ago, and those few that do exist would never justify all the different activities archaeologists are currently paid to do.
I suppose this means that Cornelius feels that democracy isn't working very well on the areas of academic research and heritage management. The public's attitude towards these things isn't adequately represented by their elected representatives in parliament, who belong to a small elite with bourgeois minority values. Correct, Cornelius?

Onward to Alun Salt:
If for instance we believe that archaeological epistemology cannot aid interpretation and that acceptability of explanations is a political affair then there's a strong argument to cease teaching people to be bad archaeologists and teach them to be good politicians instead.
Well put, I agree!
I think a good point Cornelius raises in his recent book is that it's the process that is important. If you're seeking a spiritual connection to ancient sites then is an archaeological process useful?
Process? Bah, fluff. But sure, everybody has a right to accessing the cultural heritage as long as they don't ruin sites. Meanwhile, I consider it my right as a citizen and my duty as a scientist to object when pyramidologists and Wiccans and Christians make erroneous statements about the past.
If I ever got to produce an archaeology or history series I think I'd have two opposites (processualist v. post-processualist or orthodox v. alternative) tackle a different issue each week.
I think a lot of the dissent among such members of different camps would be about untestable hypotheses. I'd prefer archaeology to point out clearly and then avoid such unprofitable areas of inquiry. There are so many things nobody can ever know about the past.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Challenged by Cornelius

In a comment to my recent entry on plans for a skeptic anthology, my colleague Cornelius Holtorf has issued a couple of challenges on the topic of pseudoscientific archaeology. These are issues close to my heart, so I'll reply with a full blog entry.

Quoth Cornelius:
Regarding hyper-relativism. Give me at least one example for archaeologists who actually consistently argued that 'any interpretation is as good as any other'. I know of none. To me, it is fraudulent pseudo-science to state the opposite.
Not having read everything these people have written, I can't really tell whether they are consistent or not. But I know that Fredrik Andersson, Pia Andersson (no relation), Björnar Olsen and Åsa Wall have all argued at least once that any interpretation of the archaeological record is as good as another -- with the ugly anti-intellectual exception that they only wish to accept politically attractive or beneficial interpretations. See my 2005 paper in META for references.

[Update 12 June: Oh, I forgot Håkan Karlsson. And of course Mike Shanks & Chris Tilley in Re-constructing Archaeology. I should also add that Cornelius acted as an extremely supportive "opponent" at Fredrik Andersson's viva/disputation, where he had the opportunity to voice his dissent if he had any problem with hyper-relativism.]

(Oh Cornelius, would you really accuse me of fraudulent pseudo-science? The horror!)

Continued he:
Regarding the ills of pseudoscience. Give me a few good reasons why it is so bad if people 'dream' about the past rather than follow more scientific procedures. In what circumstances does it actually matter to get it 'right'? And in what circumstances does it perhaps not matter so much? Usually historians and archaeologists emphasise 'human curiosity' and 'collective identity' as two important reasons for knowing the past. But none of those require (or benefit from) knowledge about the past to be actually true.
As for why we should bother, the main reason is that we are paid to be scientists, not poets. The tax payers expect archaeologists to do the same kind of work as physicists, biologists and historians. Not just comment on the source material in a learned and entertaining way, but seek the truth.

My opinion is that anyone in academe who is cynical about the concept of scientific truth does the handiwork of fascists, willingly or not. We have to be able, for instance, to give certain and truthful answers as to who has been oppressed or exterminated in the past.

I'm both a scientist and a tax payer. I think that any university discipline that is unable or unwilling to find scientific truth should be stripped of all public funding.

But what Cornelius means by "people" is probably non-scholars. Why should we bother if they have unscientific ideas about the past? Why, because we hark back to the Enlightenment! We know some truth, so it's our job to spread it. The public doesn't pay scholars to sit around in their ivory towers: we should be on prime-time television and tell them what we've come up with. We know better about the past than the von Däniken fans. It's our duty to correct their errors. It's a disgrace if we let them dominate the media and the public's ideas about the past. If it doesn't matter what the public believes about the distant past, then why should the public fund scientific archaeology?

To readers outside Scandinavian archaeology, I should perhaps explain that Cornelius and I don't really work with the same things despite having PhDs in the same academic subject. While I study how people lived in the past, Cornelius's plentiful work is mainly meta-archaeology. That is, he's a level above me in abstraction: he studies how people have studied how people have lived in the past. Cornelius looks at me looking at them. But not just inside academe: he looks at how laymen through the ages perceive the distant past and use its remains and imagery in architecture and art. (Cornelius, you should have a look at the faux Ankor Vat plaster ruin and African shanty town in Parken Zoo, Eskilstuna!). So if the public got in line and accepted the scientific view of the past, Cornelius would have to come up with something new to do.

Incidentally, this places us on different sides in the so-called science wars: Cornelius works in the tradition of science studies in sociology where some very prominent authors have wished to deconstruct the concept of scientific truth. I can't say whether Cornelius buys this idea,

[Update 13 June: OMG, I can! He does! "Epistemic relativism means that nobody's knowledge is more accurate to an assumed single reality than any other (in other words, there is no single, knowable reality) - and this is a respectable academic position that is shared by some archaeologists (including myself)."]

but in the 90s the science studies people contended that the findings of, say, archaeology, were simply the fruits of the social situation in which the scholars worked. So if someone made a statement about the Stone Age, the science studies people would reply that "he just says that because he's a white bourgeois male funded by so-and-so" (like Cornelius and myself). Knowledge wasn't really about truth, it was "socially constructed". This is known as "post-modern hyper-relativism", and I loathe it to the core of my little furry being.

I, on the other hand, am a rationalist. To me there is only only one kind of truth, the kind I teach my kids to tell; be it about the contents of one's refrigerator, about distant stars, or about life in the Stone Age. I ackowledge the detrimental effect that a scholar's social situation may have on his scientific detachment and judgement, but I see this only as an obstacle on the way to truth, not as the entire basis of knowledge. There's one world out there regardless of people's beliefs, and our job is to find out bits of truth about it.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Academic Lore

I'm reading a collection of essays by a somewhat misandric lit-crit professor. Via a Google search on tragic unpublished writer Greta Beckius I stumbled across a treasure trove of academic history: 122 essays in Swedish on the history of student life in Uppsala. They're written by Erik och Marta Ronne, and most were published in the Upsalian students' magazine Ergo during the 90s and 00s. Fascinating stuff, for example this piece about 19th century brothels in Uppsala catering to the student, erm, body. Or this one about a charitable association in the 1880s that tried to stop prostitution by educating young working-class women.

As for the lit-crit essays, let me just state for the record that I don't give a damn about Georg Brandes nor Victoria Benedictsson.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Caffeine Withdrawal Headache

For a few years now, I've been drinking about a litre of tea a day. But in the summers I lose the taste for tea and quit cold turkey for a few months. This morning I didn't feel like tea. I had some of the kids' apple juice instead. And now I've got a caffeine withdrawal headache, discernible despite the ibuprofen pain killer I've taken.

I don't like being unnecessarily addicted to stuff. Air, food, water, sure, but being addicted to some irrelevant plant substance is just silly. Caffeine is a funny compound from an evolutionary point of view, though. It's present in several plants with no close evolutionary relationship. They must have evolved the ability to make the stuff independently. According to Wikipedia, it works as a pesticide. I guess a drug just potent enough to paralyze an insect will tickle a human brain sufficiently to keep it alert. I wonder what the natural purpose of the alkaloids in ergot are.

I don't like tea. What I like, actually, is milk and sugar flavoured with tea. And in the evenings I have taken to drinking rooibos flavoured with bits of orange peel. If I wean myself off caffeine, will rooibos start tasting as good as tea? Only one way to find out. And I could probably still have tea once a week.

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Book Review: Spinrad, Iron Dream

Norman Spinrad's 1972 novel The Iron Dream is a strange book. It purports to be the work of Adolf Hitler in an alternate timeline where the Austrian left Europe for New York in 1919 and became a writer and illustrator of science fiction. Among the fictitious works of fiction listed on one of the book's first pages are The Twilight of Terra and The Triumph of the Will.

As far as I can see, the book is a skilful and credible approximation of an sf novel written by this counterfactual Hitler in 1953. On an Earth twelve centuries after nuclear catastrophe, a country obsessed with racial purity goes to war against its mutated neighbours, including the mind-controlling Zind, a thinly veiled allegory of the Communist states. The Leader's career closely traces that of the real-world Hitler, minus the sticky end of the Third Reich. You hardly turn a page without tall blond men in black leather uniforms and dainty red capes making crisp straight-armed salutes and clicking their heels. The word "fanatical" is used frequently and with strongly positive connotations.

But this of course begs the question, who would ever want to read such a book? Spinrad's effort must be seen as one long and rather tedious joke at the expense of the Nazis and the more militaristic contributors to American 50s sf. The funny parts are even spelt out in an eleven-page "afterword to the 2nd edition" by another alter ego of Spinrad's who is critical of "Hitler's" book. But was it really worth writing a 240-page novel in a crazy militaristic style just to get to this little punchline? I can't really say it's worth reading those 240 pages.

I mean, what was Spinrad trying to say? That Nazism is bad? Gee, thanks for opening our eyes to that one. Michael Moorcock is funny and confrontative, though, in his jacket blurb: he compares "Hitler's" work to that of conservative Britons Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and Sir Oswald Mosley! "It is bound to earn Hitler the credit he so richly deserves!"

Dear Reader, if you decide to write fiction in the voice of a historical person, I suggest you choose somebody likeable. Or at least someone sane.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Dots On Map

Here's a map from Google Analytics of where the blog's readers during the past week are based. Makes me glad I'm writing in English! But Australia and New Zealand seem to have their own net, fairly oblivious to ours.

Update 6 June:And what about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hong Kong? I bet the reader in the Maldives is just a Swedish tourist.

Archaeological Book Reviews

I read a lot of archaeological books and I review some of them in journals, primarily Fornvännen, of which I am one of the editors. Currently, I've got reviews of 39 books on-line, mostly in Swedish. The books I discuss have been published in the 90s and 00s. Most deal with Northern Europe.

There are several reasons that I do all this reviewing.
  • It helps me organise my thoughts about a book and to remember what I've read.
  • It allows me to take part in the scholarly debate with much greater frequency and shorter delay than if I only expressed my opinions as part of scholarly papers and books. A reviewer needn't present any investigations of his own, but he must express opinions.
  • Book reviews help qualify a scholar for grants and jobs.
Dear Reader, are you interested in Scandinavian archaeology and/or skepticism? Would you like to review a book? Then look no further than your friendly local blogger, who edits journals on these topics.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Book review: LeGuin, Voices

The estuarine city of Ansul was once the peaceful home of prosperous polytheistic tradespeople. A decade and a half ago, Ansul was conquered by the Alds, monotheistic desert nomads bent on holy war. The patriarchal Alds hate and fear books and writing, and Ansul's culture of learning and gender equality was swiftly eradicated or forced into hiding. As the story begins, the city stirs under the yoke of Ald occupation.

The UK edition of Ursula K. LeGuin's young adult novel Voices was distributed on advance order beginning in May. As befits a coming-of-age story, it has a teenage main protagonist who becomes central to a series of dramatic upheavals as she grows to find her place in the world. It's a story of books and the love of story, and equally an extended commentary on George Bush II and the Iraq war.
We had suffered much from Iddor's belief that he had been divinely sent to drive out demons and destroy evil, and we all felt now that with him imprisoned, disgraced, the power of that belief was broken. We had to deal with an enemy still, but a human enemy, not a demented god. (Ch. 13)
Voices is set in the same world as the previous book in the series, 2004's Gifts, but if that book was set in a fantasy Scotland (with kilts!), then this is Provence, and the action takes place about 20 years after the events in Gifts. Orrec and Gry from the preceding book return as supporting characters, a middle-aged celebrated poet and his animal-tamer wife. LeGuin's fans have met them many times in earlier books through the years. As the author says in an essay, she is fully aware of the troubled and frail yet ultimately strong male character that keeps appearing to her inner eye, be he named Orrec, Shevek or Ged. Myself, I suspect Mr LeGuin or perhaps Prof. Kroeber.

2006 finds LeGuin the Space Crone in fine shape, her prose as elegant and measured as ever. The only detail I caught where her stylistic sense has failed her is in the repeated use of the phrase "Iddor and the redhats" indicating the fundamentalist villain of the tale and his retinue. LeGuin was 25 when Bill Haley and the Comets had their first hit with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", 44 when Iggy and the Stooges released Raw Power, so her venerable age is no excuse.

As for the resolution of the story's main conflict, I only wish it could be that easy in the real world. The people of Ansul may be disgruntled with their oppressors, but they have “peace in their bones”. Would that the same could be said of the people of Iraq.

Voices is a fine novel that works well on its own, so it is a place as good as any to start discovering the humanistic, liberal joy that is Ursula K. LeGuin. I'll give it to my kids when that day comes – after they've been through the original Earthsea books, that is.

LeGuin, U.K. 2006. Voices. Orion Books. ISBN 9-781842-555071.
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Friday, June 02, 2006

A Flag From the Hand of the King

My old school is half a century old this year. My son goes there as well. I just got an e-mail from the headmistress with info about the semicentenary celebrations. How do you like this?
On this great occasion the school's festival committee has applied for, and been granted, the honour of receiving a flag from the hand of His Majesty the King during the celebrations of the National Day at Skansen [a museum park displaying early rural architecture]. Our two pupil's council chairpeople N.N. and N.N., together with second-year teacher N.N., will represent Igelboda school at the ceremony on 6 June. We all look forward to this with great joy and pride.
The honour of receiving a flag from the king!? Great joy and pride? I hardly know where to start. As Kevin Barnes put it,
On our trip to England I noticed something obscene
People still actually give a shit about the Queen
Sweden hasn't really had a national day before now, and somebody's trying really hard to drum up popular enthusiasm for it. I wish my kid went to a school that taught him that kings and nations are undemocratic holdovers from an evil past. It's a disgrace that Sweden is still nominally a monarchy. Republic now!

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Thursday, June 01, 2006


Back in winter when I bought my handheld computer, I told you that it was the ultimate blogger's tool. I promised to blog from a treetop in the woods when the weather got better.

Dear Reader, I am in a tree. It's a Scotch pine, and it took a while to find one with any branches low enough to reach. My coordinates are N59°17.063 E018°13.742. The tree is on a hill in the woods belonging to Erstavik manor, near a steep slope with a lovely view.

Birdsong, blackbirds and others, traffic noise from the 222 motorway to the north, rustling leaves on the birches as the wind picks up. My bum hurts.

This is somewhere between 55 and 60 meters above current sea level. I wonder if there's any knapped quartz around.

With a decent platform, this would be a good elk spotting site. And an excellent mosquito site, I just realised.

Going home now to put the pix on-line. Just gonna put up some notices about selling the Ponty first. Aaaaaow, me bum!

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